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Editorial: Five years ago, I asked a question: why do women leave architecture?

Indexforeditorial

I could not find a single answer to this question, but a whole spectrum of experience only partially captured by the responses to the Women in Architecture (WIA) survey. With women making up half of architecture students, as then editor of the Architects’ Journal, I hunted the spectre of the missing 25 per cent among qualified architects.

What I found was that many women who had earned the title of architect were not afforded the respect, or the pay, of their male colleagues. If they had reached director level, they were either married to their co-director or, more often, found in roles such as HR, interiors and sustainability. Some had ducked the glass ceiling by founding their own practice and were quietly labouring on in relative obscurity: generations of talented graduates making careers out of house extensions. Others joined academia because of a perceived better work/life balance. Many had left architecture altogether.

My imperfect response to these findings was the founding of the  Women in Architecture Awards, which enter into partnership this year with the AR. The awards have been widely praised for championing talent, but their purpose has also been questioned. I’ve been asked whether there is a need for the awards and whether I am fighting discrimination with another kind of marginalisation.

‘What I found was that many women who had earned the title of architect were not afforded the respect, or the pay, of their male colleagues’

The thorniest issue is the word ‘woman’ – ‘I identify as an architect,’ many women tell me, ‘not a woman architect.’ And this is right and true – the trouble is that gender is difficult to escape. We can fight, but can’t exactly choose how we are identified by the other; and architects who are female are rare, not quite as rare as ethnic minority architects, but both are immediately identified as such. Thus, the political purpose of the awards is not to lavish praise on women for being women, but to seriously consider the work of exceptional designers who happen to be women – just as our Emerging Architecture Awards praise designers who happen to be early in their career. The WIA Awards consider their work, their approach. This is perhaps more unusual than we would like to admit – to have the work of a female architect considered without a gendered halo.

The last five years have been filled with cringing questions: do I think women would design prettier cities? I do not think there is any difference in the way women and men approach design – the campaign is about enabling access for women, and equal recognition for equal contribution. Am I infantilising women by pandering to them with their own award? The judging panel is one of the most rigorous and prestigious in architecture – these are not individuals who pander to anyone. Those shortlisted for the Moira Gemmill Prize for Emerging Architecture have presented to the jury, while the projects in contention for Architect of the Year have been visited by an independent critic.

‘The thorniest issue is the word ‘woman’ – ‘I identify as an architect,’ many women tell me, ‘not a woman architect’

Many of the claims of discrimination in the profession are met with disbelief, but the global survey published in these pages makes upsetting reading: 72 per cent of women have suffered sexual discrimination during their career in architecture (many with disturbing frequency), and 83 per cent of women in the profession feel that having children places them at a disadvantage in architecture.

Our thanks to the sponsors and partners for supporting these awards and campaign. By raising the profile of talented architects who happen to be women, I hope to upset the archetype of architect as white male, make inroads into the future canon taught in schools, and inspire a generation to invest in the missing.